While perusing the Internet this week, I came across a few sad song playlists. And while they had a lot of the same artists you see on all those lists (Richard Buckner, The Smiths, Jason Molina etc), they were missing the saddest song ever written – Mark Kozelek’s “Ruth Marie.”
If you’re not familiar with Mark, his songs usually appear on anything tagged sad or depressing. As frontman of Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon, his music has the ability to take control of your mood immediately. Especially if you just broke up with someone. His haunting voice and (usually) stripped-down melancholic-yet-catchy guitar riffs resonate with the awkward teenage angst far more than any other singer songwriter who has somehow found more acclaim. He’s more accessible than shoegazer bands like Codeine, yet much more powerful than anything you’ve ever heard on radio. To put it in today’s terms, he was Bon Iver before Bon Iver was Bon Iver.
A little background: I’ve had a soft spot for Mark since 1992, when I found his first EP (Down Colorful Hill) at a college record store in Lexington, KY. As a frustrated 16-year-old in a small town who hated everyone, I had the perfect sensibility for Mark’s music. Everything from the artwork (sepia-toned photos of rustic furniture) to the intensely personal lyrics to the guitar hooks that stuck in your head, I was hooked from the first listen and have followed him ever since.
But ‘Ruth Marie’ is a different kind of depressing than his RHP or SKM stuff. It’s not about pining for some girl or the empty loneliness of getting older. It’s about a dying old woman who’s looking back on her life as she fades into dementia. He wrote it right after visiting a friend’s grandmother in a elderly home. (Who’s ready for some LOLs?)
If you’ve ever seen Mark live, he’s actually pretty funny (he’s also appeared in a number of movies – most notably as the bassist in Almost Famous.) I’m not sure why he never took off like Bon Iver. Maybe he was too ahead of his time. I’m not sure, but if you are ever wondering what the saddest song ever written is, it’s going to be hard to top ‘Ruth Marie.’